Virginia won’t consider widening I-95, blames Express Lanes

First on Potomac Local 

PRINCE WILLIAM COUNTY, Va. — When the Occoquan District Supervisor asked state officials to consider a small fix to ease a part of the region’s Interstate 95 traffic burden, she didn’t like the answer she received.

Ruth Anderson asked Virginia’s Commonwealth Transportation Board to consider extending a fourth travel lane on Interstate 95 from the Occoquan River south to Prince William Parkway. After extending the 4th lane from Newington in Fairfax County south to the river in 2011, the Virginia Department of Transportation created a heavy bottleneck at the lane’s terminus at the busy Route 123/I-95 interchange.

Anderson stated that “at a minimum” a fourth lane extended south to the Parkway is a sensible solution as the six-lane road, and its highway interchange is better equipped than the Route 123 junction to handle more traffic. Officials in Prince William said they’ve long asked the state to widen the road to four travel lanes on the north and southbound sides through nearly the entire stretch of I-95 in Prince William County, from Occoquan to Dumfries.

Instead, the I-95 E-ZPass Express Lanes were built. Toll lanes in the center of the highway that regularly charge as much as $16 one way, and allows vehicles with three or more occupants to ride free.

In a response, the CTB noted it wouldn’t even consider the project because of the negative impacts it could have to the Express Lanes.

“As a result of this review, it has been determined that…[widening] I-95 from Occoquan River bridge to Route 234 is not eligible for the following reasons: The project’s estimate would result in a compensation event for the I-95 Express Lanes…” the letter stated.

The state’s new Smart Scale process requires state transportation planners place every proposed transportation project under heavy scrutiny before any funds are awarded. The fact that the state could be forced to pay Transurban, the Austrailian company that operates the Express Lanes for the next 70 years, was enough for it shut down the widening idea, with the letter stating “this project will not proceed to the next step in the evaluation process.”

“I am very disappointed that the I-95 widening project did not make the cut in our Commonwealth’s Smart Scale funding program this time around… The most glaring problem occurs during the afternoon commute as vehicles enter [Prince William County] traveling south on I-95 where the interstate decreases from four to three lanes at the 123 interchange in the same location that cars are entering I-95 from other locations. This is not only an embarrassment for [Prince William County], it is a detriment to economic development prospects, a major frustration to our residents who commute and one of the top reasons Old Bridge Road becomes so congested,” stated Andreson in an email.

So, would state taxpayers be on the hook to compensate Transurban if I-95 is widened, adding capacity to the highway and potentially taking toll-paying customers off the Express Lanes?

“Not necessarily—but there are steps for evaluation and analysis that are looked at…” stated Virginia Department of Transportation spokeswoman Jennifer McCord.

According to an agreement with the state, if there is the talk of widening I-95, Transurban gets the first crack at adding new lanes to Interstate 95, which it would operate as toll lanes. If the company opts not to add new lanes, “[VDOT] may add additional lanes as a department project…such Additional Lanes will constitute a compensation event,” according to a copy of the agreement McCord shared with Potomac Local.

“…VDOT would work with Transurban to look at best options and analyze a specific project,” added McCord.

How much money could the state payout if VDOT decided to widen the road? State transportation officials don’t know.

“…adequate information is not currently available,” the CTB letter states.

For now, Anderson will continue to focus on small improvements to the second-most traveled road in her magisterial district: Old Bridge Road. She’s convinced VDOT to install new signage that directs drivers bound for I-95 to use Prince William Parkway instead of Old Bridge, and she held multiple traffic think tank meetings in 2016 where residents gathered to discuss solutions to common problems along the Old Bridge corridor.

Anderson says she won’t stop pushing for I-95 widening.

“Commuters who could use Prince William Parkway to get home, instead choose Old Bridge Road…because they see the congestion ahead on I-95. This problem needs to be a priority for transportation agencies making decisions about the use of our tax dollars designated for transportation improvements,” she added.

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